Sexism & Rear of the Year: why media scrutiny of Cambridge students continues
Alice Udale-Smith is worried by the national press's reaction to the latest mini scandal to hit Cambridge.
Last week whilst struggling through revision I fell into a spiral of procrastination, devoured everything I could find to read online, and ended up on the Tab website. There I flicked through a feature inviting me to vote for the “Rear of the Year”. My initial reaction to the article, which later made headlines in the Telegraph, Guardian, Sun and Daily Mail, was a roll of the eyes and a simple “well, it is the Tab after all”. This was followed by “oh dear what would the Daily Mail say?” before quickly forgetting all about it. Even after a second look at the two offending articles that caught the attention of the national press I found little to offend. Yet stories like this one and the inevitable photo spreads of drunken students on Caesarean Sunday continue to make headlines.
The reason is rarely found in the content of the story itself but instead is due to the nation’s on-going love-hate relationship with the institution of Oxbridge. In this instance, as in most cases, the story itself is relatively tame and little more than frivolous fun. This, however, has very little bearing on the position from which Oxbridge is viewed by the national press. The two universities are either portrayed as intimidating institutions for the privileged, out of touch with modern society, or as places where common students run wild holding obscene rear of the year competitions and bringing the name of their prestigious university into disregard. Whilst these two views are equally misguided they nevertheless persist in the national consciousness as the most common views of Oxbridge. Why Oxbridge is attacked for its traditions one minute and praised for them the next is a topic worthy of its own PhD. However, at a basic level it seems to stem from the public’s discomfort with such obvious establishments of traditional elitism whilst also feeling incredibly protective of them as a proud part of our national history.
Returning to the feature at the centre of this particular minor scandal however, the most serious accusation thrown at it was that it was sexist. This is a serious accusation and one in my opinion some past Tab features have arguably earned. This competition however was not one of those occasions; as Tab Editor and Gonville and Caius student Joseph Bates has repeatedly pointed out the competition started with a men’s version before expanding to a women’s competition as a natural follow up to a popular idea. The idea that the women were being exploited any more than the men were is therefore particularly absurd. Furthermore, and more importantly, the press should credit the women in question with having some intelligence and consider that maybe posing for the pictures was something they did both voluntarily and for of fun. Their overreaction shows how even today a woman can be praised for either her brain or her looks, but daring to be comfortable with both simultaneously is still criticised. Another childish response to the article was to claim that posing for this competition was wasting the opportunities Cambridge offers us as students. Whilst I agree that when attending Cambridge we are implicitly agreeing to make our degree the most important aspect of our time here the idea that this prevents us from engaging in any other activities that are not strictly academic is quite simply ridiculous.
The only time I therefore felt sorry for these girls was when their pictures were, presumable unsuspectingly, being reproduced in the Sun and the Daily Mail for the nation to see. The fact that several of their profiles were subsequently removed from the Tab website and the girls article has now completely disappeared (although the original male version remains) suggests something of the shock they must have felt at the sudden national exposure. Whilst submitting the photos showed some naivety on their part at the scrutiny Cambridge students are subjected to, any exploitation was by the papers reproducing the photos for an audience they were not intended for.
The rear of the year competition, whilst not in the best taste, was not the scandal it was turned into by the press. The fact that it even made the national papers says more about the joy still taken in attacking Oxbridge then it does about the behaviour and attitudes of its Cambridge audience. It also suggests that once more we can look forward to a lovely full page spread in the Mail of Suicide Sunday’s garden parties, once these exams are finally over.